The story makes all the difference

What can independent hotels do to position themselves successfully against chains? Geoff Andrew, CEO of the 350-member-strong Worldhotels, thinks its quite simple. “Today, travellers seek authenticity, so tell them your story!” Because “good” is not just boring, it’s fatal.

text: Anke Pedersen 

Mr Andrew, you’ve analysed what independent hotels can do – no, must do – in order to be able to face up to large chains. What was the outcome?

First of all, we asked ourselves, what trends are there in guest booking behaviour? How do people today make a decision to book? Especially in times when people are increasingly looking online and getting an impression this way.

So?

It’s clear that brand loyalty is waning. People are increasingly driven by the hotel itself, the hotel reviews and also what their own social media group has to say. So what are hotel salespeople doing? They’re still introducing their hotels in terms of “we have 300 rooms, five room categories” and so on. Seriously? EVERY hotel has rooms!

So what counts today is that narrative, the story that a hotel has to tell. In today’s competitive environment, with more choice than ever before, only unique stories can establish a connection with the guest. That’s why we’ve launched the “Start with WHY” program. We got this line of questioning from best-selling author Simon Sinek, who asks: “why do you get up each morning?” Likewise, a hotel also has to ask itself, “why should people come here? Is it really just about the price and location?” With this information, we can help to develop stories and put these in the spotlight.

So isn’t a good price and a good location enough any more?

A brand needs a story and branded hotels need their own history. An online review, with five stars, that says “Beautiful but boring” is a disaster these days. Boring is risky. Travellers want to experience something – experiences are the new luxury. Only hotels that adapt to these changes will be successful in the future.

What’s behind the program?

In the one-day “Start with WHY” kick-off workshop, all our members learn how to sell more effectively. The general manager, owner and various team leaders are also invited to this – from head of department to the concierge. Around ten people. Then we really get stuck in. What’s our hotel about? What should our guests be saying when they leave the hotel?

One statement is sufficient to start with and the team then develop this together in the workshop. For example, “Home away from home”. The statement must then undergo a 360-degree examination. What facilities/environment do you need if you want to experience “Home away from home”? What type of employees and what kind of management?

The entire process then goes through four to five phases, and it can take up to a year and a half until the new motto, the story, has penetrated across all levels. For “Home away from home”, a key word such as “informal” might be central. This could mean that guests can serve themselves. But this then flows into other areas of service. It is therefore important to make a clear statement prior to any decision.

Not everyone has a great story up their sleeve.

And clearly, not every hotel can start from scratch. And it’s not as easy for every hotel as it was for the Courthouse Hotel in London, a former Magistrate’s Court which once hosted trials of celebrities such as John Lennon and Mick Jagger. But even if there’s not such rich history, there’s always something to tell. It could even be something from the surrounding area.

And don’t underestimate the high level of enthusiasm on behalf of employees if you suddenly show interest in their ideas and suggestions. Ask their opinion on what makes the hotel stand out. This often results in a very unique, significant dynamic.

Almost all chains have now developed new brands that aim to tell even more individual, unique and special stories than others, since millennials particularly appreciate individuality and authenticity.

In contrast to large hotel groups, independent hotels are valued for their distinctiveness and character. Large groups will find it difficult to define a personal story. However, independent hotels were simply designed to tell their own unique stories. They are the masters of storytelling. The large chains will continue to exist, because there will always be a target group who wishes to find the same standard all over the world.

But something new is going on here. For years, independent hotels didn't stand a chance when up against major brands. That has changed. Today you need local authenticity and a good story. Marriott and other chains are trying to replicate this in new brands. But a “home for something different” can’t work, this is not true independence. We however support true independence, by asking: how can our members survive and grow? What can we offer them, that a chain can’t?

A program on storytelling?

That too. We advise our hotels on the topic of digital marketing, in particular. A good website is an absolute must. But that alone isn’t enough these days. The sharing economy continues to grow, a challenge which our hotels must also face. For this reason, it is more important than ever to differentiate and tell your own story. “You can push up your rates without compromising on demand.”

What happens in the event of success?

Guests opt for a brand like Worldhotels partly because they want to be sure of what they’re getting. The key word here is brand promise. But loyalty is equally important. And then we can build on that, because the stories become part of “why”. But most of all, there is a direct correlation between guest reviews and turnover. A Cornell study has shown that even minor improvements – for example, from 7.2 to 8.3 points – make it possible to increase rates by five to six percent. Put differently, you can push up your rates without compromising on demand.

But hotels that want to exhibit their uniqueness can’t do it in a vacuum. They must know their target group – and very precisely. Or is that no longer the case?

Half a year ago, we were bought by Associated Luxury Hotels, and that has allowed us to make new investments. We’re currently investing in a high-quality, easy-to-use customer management system (CRM). We want to be able to determine future guest profiles with ease in the future. Discover which guest goes with which hotel. Information from the Internet and social media is also evaluated, on top of this. “Start with WHY” is a guide to selling yourself, CRM is the tool that makes these sales happen. We give our members the tools to help themselves.

Mr Andrew, thank you for talking to us.

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